Ten years ago this week, Bryan Robson was unveiled as Bradford City manager. Richard Sutcliffe talks to the former England captain.
BRADFORD CITY didn’t so much celebrate their Centenary season as endure it.
Relegation, a second stint in administration inside as many years and a boardroom rift that culminated in the then chairman taking to the PA system to air his grievances to a startled Valley Parade were just a few of the nightmares Bantams fans had to contend with during what was a truly dismal 2003-04 campaign.
Bryan Robson, one of English football’s most inspirational figures, had a ring-side seat for much of City’s implosion as the club’s manager so could maybe be forgiven for wanting to forget all about his seven months at Valley Parade.
The reality, however, is rather different with the 56-year-old, appointed by City 10 years ago this week, instead looking back fondly on his time in West Yorkshire.
“To be in charge of a club that was relegated was incredibly frustrating and disappointing,” Robson admitted to the Yorkshire Post when asked about a season that saw Bradford finish second bottom of the First Division.
“But I have to say I really enjoyed it. I got so involved in trying to turn things round and I was also really fortunate to work with some great people at the club.
“Lads like Dean Windass and David Wetherall were what I call ‘proper professionals’ and working with them on a day-to-day basis was something I really enjoyed.
“We gave it everything and worked really hard. Ultimately, though, it wasn’t enough and that was so frustrating. But Bradford City still got under my skin. It was why I stayed, even when I should maybe have walked away.”
Robson’s quandary as to whether to stay or go came when City slid into administration in late February. An order to sell his best players and send all loanees back to their respective clubs meant a season that had started to turn round was only going to end one way.
Before reaching that tipping point, though, there had been his first game in charge at home to Millwall. Fittingly considering the coup City had pulled off in bringing not only Robson but also Colin Todd to Valley Parade on what chairman Gordon Gibb and the Rhodes family hoped would be a ‘dream ticket’, the game had been selected by Sky for live transmission.
Bradford, second bottom and five points adrift of safety, had not won in 12 games, a run that had brought an abrupt end to Nicky Law’s tenure. Millwall, meanwhile, were handily placed for the play-offs and just six months later would compete in their first FA Cup final.
In the first half, Robson’s bow as City manager went to form as goals from Tim Cahill and Nick Chadwick put the south London side into what seemed an unassailable 2-0 half-time lead.
What happened next, however, suggested the former England captain may just have the Midas touch that Bradford needed to get out of trouble as goals from Danny Cadamarteri and Andy Gray brought the home side level before Michael Branch netted a stoppage-time winner.
“Millwall was some game, wasn’t it?” recalls Robson. “It was a great night and showed we had something to build on. I think we all went away that night thinking we could turn things round.”
Sadly for City, the dramatic victory over Dennis Wise’s Millwall proved to be something of a false dawn as the next three games were all lost to late strikes.
The standard of football greatly improved under Robson and Todd but that infuriating habit of conceding late goals continued and it wasn’t until the turn of the year that the new management team felt they had stamped their mark on the squad.
Alun Armstrong, Gareth Farrelly and Ronnie Wallwork all arrived on loan and Robson believed fervently that survival could be secured.
That was, though, until the dying days of February when City’s centenary year imploded in spectacular fashion. First, chairman Gibb publicly declared his rift with fellow directors, Julian and Professor David Rhodes, over the Valley Parade PA system ahead of a 2-1 victory over Crewe Alexandra.
Then, six days later, the cash-strapped Bantams slid into administration for the second time in 21 months. For Robson, the impact was devastating.
“When I took the job,” he recalls, “it was never mentioned that we might go into administration or anything like that. The plan was to build the club up.
“So, I am sure you can imagine just how disappointing it was to get the ‘phone call from the chairman saying we were going into administration.
“Around that time, we won away at Rotherham. Ronnie Wallwork had scored twice and we had got out of the bottom three for the first time in months. I remember thinking on the way home from Rotherham, ‘We are going the right way’.
“The loan signings had worked and everyone was pulling in the same direction. We were also playing with confidence.
“But then administration came and that was that. The loan signings had to go back. Andy Gray was also sold (for £60,000 to Sheffield United). The big right-back (Simon Francis) was useful but he also had to be sold (to the Blades for £200,000).
“To lose those players was heart-breaking. It made things really, really hard. I could have gone, too. I could have walked away.
“I thought seriously about it but, in the end, decided to stay. The thing was I felt totally committed to Bradford by then and the club was really under my skin. Plus, the fans had been terrific.
“We had struggled all season and yet were still getting 13-15,000 every week. That was something I’d been impressed with. So, I stayed to see the season out.”
City’s year of supposed celebration limped on. Rotherham and Watford were beaten in early March before a Wigan Athletic side managed by Paul Jewell were held to a goalless stalemate at Valley Parade.
But then the demoralising effect of going into administration and losing their best players hit home as Bradford ended the season with eight defeats from the last nine games.
Relegation was sealed with a 3-2 home defeat to Wimbledon, who come the end of the campaign would be the only team below the Bantams in the table.
As the financial uncertainty continued into the summer, Robson called time on his reign at Valley Parade and subsequently moved on to West Bromwich Albion, who he kept in the Premier League against all the odds in his first season.
Looking back on his time with City, Robson said: “It was such a shame to end like it did with relegation but our hands were tied.
“I have always kept an eye on Bradford since then and last season was brilliant for the club. To win promotion and get to the League Cup final was great. I was so pleased for the fans, who were great to me throughout.”